Painting a Cityscape -
"Union Pacific" by John Hughes, plein air

One beautiful autumn day, I painted in downtown Salt Lake City; which turned out to be an experience to remember!

Typically I drive to painting locations, but on this day I decided to try a different plan in order to get the whole city experience. I took the TRAX (the Utah light rail system) and my backpack, which forced me to stay longer than I normally would have.

My first stop was a central hub in the middle of town. Setting up was a bit tricky, in that I had to find a good view and stay out of the way of the crowd on Main Street. It was a perfect October day with partially turned autumn trees and streaks of sunlight, which added drama to the scene.

Having grown up in New York, I have always appreciated the beauty of city life, with all of its ambience and bustling energy. Downtown Salt Lake, while not on the scale of Manhattan, nevertheless has a certain feel which is typical of many cities.

My first inclination was to ignore people around me and work as inconspicuously as possible, but in a city atmosphere you never know what to expect and maintaining my anonymity was not going to be a characteristic of this day!

My initial encounter was a construction worker who was getting a kick out of striking a pose for me. I gave him a courtesy laugh and then tried to ignore his further clowning, since I was trying to concentrate.

After that I was actually surprised at how many people didn’t give me a second glance. The only other person who interacted with me was someone from the University of Utah Art Museum, who seemed to be surprised that I was painting on the street (which surprised me!).

Working on small panels enabled me to complete my first study in an hour, and then I was off to my next spot.

For the next location, rather than having a predetermined place in mind, I planned to stop at the first subject to catch my eye. As I strolled along I savored the sights, smells, and sounds of the city. I couldn’t help but notice the aroma of food emanating from the cafés and restaurants along Main Street. The sun felt good on my face and I drank in the crisp autumn air. There was also a certain freedom knowing that I didn’t have to be anywhere except wherever the muse took me, and that was exhilarating!

Walking past the Beehive House was a sight for the eyes, with its colorful gardens and hollyhocks everywhere; I had found my next subject! The people were more interactive here and I soon struck up a conversation with a homeless man named Steve, who delighted in telling me how good the food was at the Beehive House Restaurant. He was an articulate gent, who seemed to know all of the locals. As he worked the crowd, I was impressed with his personality and he told me that he was temporarily out of work. He was also quick to mention that he dreamed about savoring the taste of some pork chops, which were a specialty of the restaurant. I told him that if he would come back in about a half hour I would be done with the painting and would be glad to see that he got his wish.

As I painted, I was approached by a small boy who held out a dollar bill. I was bewildered at first and I thought he wanted to buy my field study. He then told me that his mom said to give it to me… she thought I was the local street entertainment! I tried to hold back a chuckle because I didn’t want to offend him and I thanked him for the generous offer.

I could have set my watch by Steve’s return. He was astonished at what I was able to accomplish in the allotted time and soon we were off to the restaurant. I was able to help him with his desire and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my day. He asked me if I was going to eat, but I was too focused on getting to my next location and excused myself. In retrospect, I wish I had stayed and had a conversation with this interesting man.

Working my way back down Main, I was once again taken by the smell of food and began to question my decision to keep on painting. Upon passing a small deli, I decided to give in to the hunger and went in to grab a bite. The waiter was curious and asked what I was doing with all the gear; he had assumed that I was a photographer and was delighted to know that I was a landscape painter working the city streets.

A custom BLT was just the thing to rejuvenate me and prepare the artist inside for the next adventure. I took my time, enjoying every bite while taking in the ambiance. After bidding the staff goodbye, I was off to my next spot – the City and County Building, one of the oldest and most picturesque structures in the city. I was ready for a nice place in the shade and found just the spot. The architecture of this building, along with the prevailing light, made the perfect arrangement to end my day on.

I was soon approached by another homeless guy who told me that he had never seen anyone painting outdoors. I couldn’t help but feel an attachment to these folks who were just as interested, if not more so, than the average person who passed me by. This proved to be a day well spent and one I would remember for a long time to come. Boarding the TRAX to go home, I was confident that my decision to walk the city streets was right on.


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John Hughes teaches landscape painting classes for Salt Lake Community College and the Scottsdale Artist School, along with private art workshops and classes. His work is represented by Montgomery Lee Fine Art (Utah) and Mountain Trails Gallery (Wyoming). Hughes is a member of the Plein Air Painters of Utah, Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the American Impressionist Society. John’s work and art advice has been featured in Plein Air magazine, Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest, 15 Bytes magazine, Outdoor Painter, and Artists on Art. His work was recently featured in the book "Painters of the Grand Tetons" by Donna and James Poulton. He now maintains a studio in Taylorsville Utah, where he resides with his wife Teresa, four children, and two grandchildren.

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